On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia is working with the Syrian government to prepare an "effective, clear, concrete" proposal for Damascus to relinquish its chemical arsenal. He continued somewhat wishfully: "We hope to present this plan in the very near future, and will be prepared to finalize it and work it out with the involvement of the U.N. secretary-general, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and members of the Security Council." What might “this plan” look like, and is it likely to succeed?
The plan will undoubtedly be complicated, but it should be workable -- if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stands by his declared intention to eliminate these arms. According to the U.N., he has taken the crucial first step of immediately joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, which will allow the OPCW to legally operate in Syria and provide expert assistance to its government. Assad’s intentions can be further assessed by the cooperation he shows to OPCW representatives.
Drawing on lessons from Iraq’s and Libya’s chemical-weapons-disarming processes, the main stages of what will be needed in Syria can be predicted. The first step would be for Syria to reveal the details of its chemical weapons program, including the facilities where they were developed and produced, the number and types of weapons that have been produced, the depots where these weapons are now stored, and the depots’ security measures. This revelation may only be a beginning: When Libya and Iraq promised to shut down their chemical weapons programs, both began the process by declaring “complete” details of these programs but, in fact, left out important information about weapons that took years to discover. With information in hand, OPCW experts will be able to resolve how many investigators will be required to examine the depots and their contents and, equally important, determine the size of the military force needed to safeguard depots and protect the experts from militants who may act to disrupt any action perceived to help Assad.
Second, after having gained access to depots and investigated their contents, the experts will decide on steps needed to deactivate the weapons they contain and to empty bulk containers and destroy their contents. (Decisions on whether depots should be razed can be made at a later time.) Most likely, the deactivation process of munitions will consist of emptying warheads of payloads; removing bursters that contain TNT or similar explosives that, when detonated, disperse the payloads; and crushing the empty munitions so they never can be used. If the munitions in question are rockets or missiles, an additional step is necessary: removing volatile fuels that propel these munitions to their target. Removing payloads requires drilling into the warhead and sucking out its contents. As can be imagined, this is dangerous work, since payloads are extremely toxic and, if not handled properly, will poison workers emptying the munitions. Also, if the drilling is not precise, the drill can penetrate the burster and cause it to detonate, killing workers and destroying decommissioning equipment. Furthermore, in the case of rockets or missiles, if not handled carefully the volatile fuel can leak out, contaminate workers and ignite.
Industrialized countries in the process of ridding themselves of chemical weapons have built special facilities with automated equipment to avoid placing workers at risk from contamination and explosions. However, these very costly facilities take years to build, require expensive, specialized high-tech equipment and must be managed and operated by highly trained workers. Since Syria is unlikely to be technically capable of installing and operating this type of facility, or to pay for its construction and equipment, alternative methods may have to be found. The United Nations Special Commission's work to rid Iraq of its chemical weapons during the early 1990s can provide lessons useful to Syria. Mustard agents, which are highly combustible, were poured into trenches and burned. Nerve agents were treated with appropriate chemicals that inactivated them by hydrolysis or an analogous reaction, and then the residues were dumped in the desert, where they decomposed within months into mostly harmless degradation products.
As for emptying munitions, inspectors developed methods that depended on workers using personal protection gear. The empty munitions were crushed by heavy bulldozers. Although Syria has vast deserted spaces suited to these kinds of decontamination processes, complicated calculations would have to be made that weighed the benefit of getting rid of chemical weapons versus the possible risks posed by the destruction process to workers and the environment. The analysis would include the transport of Syrian chemical weapons to another country, possibly Russia, for destruction. Populations living in areas through which the weapons would be moved have always been against it, so a similar proposal can be expected to meet popular resistance, especially nowadays when social media immediately spread the unwelcome news of dangerous chemical transports.
There are other technical issues that will require attention. Chemical agent facilities will have to be closed or repurposed, and chemicals that are precursors to chemical weapons agents will have to be removed or managed. We also cannot know at this time whether anti-Assad militants will act to hinder or stop the chemical-disarming effort.
As difficult as the chemical-disarming process would be to undertake and complete, it could be done if the Assad regime cooperates. Conversely, if the regime stalls, obfuscates or otherwise seeks to delay international access to its chemical weapons and their depots, Assad’s real intention will be recognized by the world community for what it is -- namely, to prevent military intervention by the United States and its allies.